Almost Ideogramatic

Almost Ideogramatic

Brandon G. Holmquest

Alejandro Zambra
Malville House, Brooklyn, NY, 2009.
Translated by Carolina de Robertis


A deceptively clever novella that seeks, on every level, to mimic the form of the titular tree, Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai first presents itself as a simple boy-meets-girl story. What follows is a series of narrative and formal contortions which deviate pleasantly from anything the boy-meets-girl set up might reasonably imply. Zambra likewise winds his way over, above and around what might be expected from a more or less self-conciously literary (the boy and girl lie to one another about having read Proust), meta-fictional (the book’s first line gives away the ending), contemporary (there’s a fair amount of sex, drugs and mortality) novella by Chilean (you know who). The book is indeed inventive, though not merely. The literary acrobatics are decidely in the service of the story, or, to put it another way, the form is never more than an extension of content. And vice versa. What’s impressive is that the entire thing is welded to the idea and image of a bonsai in way that is almost ideogramatic. Zambra wrote in the Colombian journal piedepágina that the book’s origin was fi rst suggested by a newspaper “photograph of a tree covered in a transparent fabric,” part of Christo and Jeanne Claude’s Wrapped Trees series. This set him off on the usual stumbling path towards something. The final result is a very short book that is nearly an exact analogue for that “transparent fabric.” The translation by Carolina de Robertis, who has a novel of her own coming out later this year, is high quality. She performs particularly impressive acrobatics in a tricky passage early on where five different terms for the sexual act are humorously contrasted with some supposed national characteristics thrown in. This sort of thing can be very diffi cult to capture at all, and often is lost on English-readers who lack the cultural details common to Latin Americans. De Robertis just mows it down and makes it look rather easy. Bonsai is a shockingly quick read at an inflated 83 pages and is satisfying for that very reason. You consume it whole. Zambra’s last couple of books, including this one, have been published by Anagrama, which is basically Spanish for “New Directions,” so I think we all might want to keep an eye on him from now on.

Posted: April 18, 2012 at 9:41 pm

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